On February 3, 2015, I was one of 50 demonstrators in Bridgeton to protest the shooting of Jerame Reid. The police harassed us, forcing us to use the sidewalk until we reached the Municipal building, where four of us, known as the Bridgeton 4, were issued tickets for “failure to use sidewalk.” These “scare tactics” were applied by the all-white police force to intimidate demonstrators, but we came back stronger than ever on February 28.
On February 28, at least 200 demonstrators congregated in Bridgeton to take part in “The State-Wide March Against Police Brutality: The Day of Outrage.” Once again the event was headed by Walter Hudson of the National Awareness Alliance, but was sponsored by numerous groups across NJ, Philadelphia and Delaware. From Philadelphia, dozens of Philly Coalition for REAL Justice members and activists involved in the recent Brandon Tate-Brown protests traveled to Bridgeton, along with Brown’s mother, Tanya Brown. I was excited for the two groups to work together because I’ve been part of both movements for the last few months. I attended Philadelphia protests for Brandon Tate-Brown on December 28, January 19 and January 31.
There are noticeable differences between the two groups, however. The Philadelphia demonstrators are more militant and have slightly larger protests than Bridgeton, which is expected. More importantly, police in Philadelphia deal with demonstrations on a weekly basis and are trained to avoid conflict when possible. For example, protests for Brandon Tate-Brown consist of demonstrators willing to get face-to-face with officers, without the officers responding. In contrast, Bridgeton police go out of their way to start conflicts with demonstrators, which has now happened twice in the month of February. For this reason I was curious as to how events would play out with these two groups in Bridgeton.
The cold but sunny day began with a festive-atmosphere of music, food and warm drinks on the corner of Henry Street, where Jerame Reid was shot and killed on December 30. Nearly 200 demonstrators gathered there by noon, including long-time activists and friends of mine Glenn Davis of the Philadelphia Green Party, Sean Wispy of Decarcerate PA and Bob Witanek of Decarcerate the Garden State (NJ). We began marching toward Broad Street, while I carried Bob’s Decarcerate the Garden State banner. I felt we might not have trouble with police like last time because we now had three times as many people and were marching in broad day light, unlike before when we marched at night. But this soon proved to be naïve thinking on my part.
When we reached Broad Street we were ordered to walk onto the sidewalk, just like on February 3, but this time the large crowd of Philly demonstrators took the lead in protesting this demand. Demonstrators were spread across the entire intersection, while Philly members demanded the right to march in the street at their own pace. After five minutes, Philly members finished negotiating with the police and adhered to the demands of the Bridgeton organizers to continue marching. This in itself was a significant victory because we marched all the way to the Cumberland County Courthouse in the street, without anyone receiving a ticket like before.
When we arrived at the courthouse, the first thing everyone noticed was two officers dressed in swat gear on the roof of the tavern directly across the street. It seemed oddly inappropriate to have two officers dressed in swat gear to take pictures on top of a roof across the street where speeches were made, but scare tactics are now a specialty of the Bridgeton police. Speeches were conducted at the Courthouse for nearly an hour. The most moving speech of the day by Brandon Tate-Brown’s mother, who explained how the police didn’t even contact her when Brandon died, and when she finally contacted them she broke down in tears and sobbed for hours after confirming Brandon’s death. The last speaker of the event was Reid’s mother, Sheila Reid-Mayers, but she never gave her speech because of the tactical blunder made by the police, revealing how little police cared about the safety of the public and demonstrators.
When Reid’s mother was about to begin speaking, police announced they were re-opening NJ Route 49, which was closed-off for the protest. At this time there was only between 100 and 150 demonstrators remaining, half on the sidewalk and the other half in the street. Apparently the police couldn’t wait five more minutes until the rally was over to re-open the street. In fact, the police announced they opened up the street before telling any of the demonstrators to move. So it was only after the police ordered the cars to drive on the street that they learned the demonstrators would not move out of the way. Demonstrators found the police orders extremely disrespectful and not the least bit coincidental that it occurred precisely when Reid’s mother was about to begin the final speech. Therefore over 50 demonstrators, a good portion from Philly, continued standing in the street while several cars moved toward them.
The situation became chaotic when one car hit (or nearly hit) of the demonstrators. Despite the fact that over 20 police officers witnessed this happen, not a single officer went after the dangerous driver. The white demonstrator who was hit (or nearly hit) was dismayed when he saw police just standing there, and he began walking toward them to complain about the driver. Two officers then began walking toward the demonstrator and began placing him under arrest in the street. The remaining demonstrators were yelling in outrage, which caused a distraction that allowed the demonstrator to get free, who began to run away in fear before he was forced to the ground by five officers. The wife and two daughters (around the ages of 9 and 6 by my guess) of the demonstrator immediately began crying and were terrified. As demonstrators remained in the street, police attempted to calm the situation by exposing their tear-gas and assault rifles.
Once again the Philly and Bridgeton demonstrators, in general, reacted differently. While Philly demonstrators remained in the street, Newark leader of People’s Organization for Power and one of the Bridgeton 4, Lawrence Hamm, requested everyone to come onto the sidewalk and not fall for the traps of the police. Along with Hamm in making this request was Sheila Reid, who never made her speech because of the commotion caused by the police. After 10 long minutes, people eventually moved onto the sidewalk, bringing the rally to an end. Thus, out of the 2 peaceful marches conducted in Bridgeton in February, police were 2-for-2 for harassing demonstrators and risking the safety of the public.
During the chaos following the arrest of the one demonstrator, a speaker on the microphone repeated a message directed at the police: “This is all on national television,” since numerous reporters were there. But believe it or not, every newspaper either excluded the arrest or placed the blame on the demonstrators through biased language. NJ.com, 6 ABC News and CBS Philly made no mention of the arrest. (Spencer Kent, NJ.com, February 28; John Rawlins, February 28, “6 ABC News”; CBS Philly.com, February 28) Both the Daily Journal and My9NJ.com claimed “no arrests were made.” (The Daily Journal.com, [AP] February 28; My9NJ.com, [AP] February 28) NBC10.com repeatedly emphasized that one protestor was seen “kicking one of the Jeep’s tires as it drove off,” (placing blame on the demonstrator) which led to a “shouting match and then a police confrontation,” placing all the blame on the emotional protestors as if the police didn’t “confront” the protestors with guns and tear gas. (David Chang, NBC10.com, February 28)
The day before the rally, Bridgeton Police Captain Michael Gaimari was quoted saying: “We’re going to do everything we can to protect both the public and those that are marching.” (Philly.com, February 27) On February 4, the day after the first rally, referring to the 4 tickets issued, he said he felt “obligated to enforce the laws to protect them [protesters] and those that are operating motor vehicles on the city’s roadways.” (Philly.com, Feb. 4, 2015) Both times he was lying when he made this claim because clearly the cops don’t serve the interests of the community, but only that of the political elites.